Brilliant, funny, crabby, tender, witty and wise - just some of the words affectionately used to describe novelist, critic and creative writing professor Carolyn See. A book reviewer for The Washington Post and author of five novels including The Handyman and Golden Days, See is at the heart of a thriving Los Angeles literary community.
See gained her Ph.D. in American literature from UCLA, where she was, until last month, an adjunct professor of English. Her awards include the prestigious Robert Kirsch Body of Work Award (1993) and a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction. Audiences fall in love with her open, exposed take on life, no doubt a side-effect of the "drugs, drink, depression, divorce and suicide," that have at different times touched her life. "She has the strange gift for arranging mere words in an order that moves the heart," wrote one journalist and admirer. "Suddenly you'll find yourself in tears."
It easy to understand what he means when you read See's essay Waters of Tranquility, written shortly before the September 2000 death of her life partner of 26 years, writer John Espey. They met when he was a professor at UCLA, and she a graduate student in his modern British poetry class. "He was so funny that we would leave a three-hour class aching from laughing," she remembers. They embarked on a remarkable literary and romantic journey, publishing a novel inspired by their relationship (‘Two Schools of Thought: Some Tales of Learning and Romance', 1991) and the popular series of Monica Highland books, Lotus Land (1983), 110 Shanghai Road (1986), and Greetings from Southern California (1988), co-written with one of Carolyn's daughters.
The ‘waters of tranquility' referred to in the essay title are at the Self-Realization Fellowship on Sunset Blvd, not far from the hillside property in the Palisades she has called home for six years. She used to visit the lake often during the last few years of Espey's life, seeking refuge from the inevitable. Just walking around the lake would restore some sense of calm into her soul. "Every day I'd swing on over to the Lake Shrine, right on the brink of murdering one well-meaning relative or another and make the first circle, swearing, muttering oaths and imprecations, sneering at whoever got in my way," she wrote. "By the second time around, I'd remember why I was there, how I was losing the man I loved most in the world. I'd lean against trees and weep, sit on those benches and sob. The third time around, I'd hear myself asking for courage, steadfastness, compassion! The fourth time around, I could walk, and watch."
The work is featured in My California, a new anthology bringing together 27 of the state's finest writers. As well as See, the list of contributors includes such luminaries as Michael Chabon, Thomas Steinbeck and Patt Morrison. All of them donated their work for free, as did David Hockney, iconic pop artist and Los Angeles resident whose collage depicting a road in the Mohave desert graces the book's cover. All proceeds are going towards the California Arts Council, which has seen its budget slashed by 97% in the last few years. The purpose of the book, according to the publishers, is to aid the fight to "save the Golden State's creative soul".
It's a project close to Carolyn's heart n she's an educator as much as an author, a professor at Loyola Marymount University and UCLA for a total 34 years until her retirement last month. For her, the importance of bringing the arts to the next generation of Californians cannot be overstated. "Forty years ago, there was a teensy literary community in Los Angeles," said See, who wrote her Ph.D. thesis on The Hollywood Novel back in 1963. "People would come over from the East, have a movie deal go sour, get cranky and write a mean-spirited Hollywood novel. Then they'd go home."
See was one of those who helped solidify the fledgling LA literary scene, mentoring young writers much in the same way that Espey mentored her as a young writer. "I pay attention to where we live and how to help to put together a community of Southern California writers," she says. The ‘My California' project is, she believes, part of a growing body of work reflecting the diverse talents of local authors and the emergence of a formidable homegrown literary community.
There shouldn't really be any difference, but there is. New York is a very small place, it's compressed. Everyone's in each others' faces. You go for lunch with someone and then bump in to them at a dinner party the same day.
I think they are n which is perfectly alright, but it's just different from here. In L.A., there's a huge amount of space so you can chose to see writers or you can chose to see somebody else. There's plenty of room to move.
Also, New York's been written about so much that people have a virtual NY in their mind. In L.A., there's still so much to write about.
Is it hard for local writers to convince people there is more to L.A. than the cliché of lala-land and Hollywood glitz?
The cliché was invented by the East Coast writers who came here 40 or 50 years. They really did suffer a tremendous culture shock. They couldn't assimilate, they had a disconnect. In early books, they would say ‘the fruit looks wonderful but it has no taste, the ocean has no smell and there are no seasons'. They thought L.A. was an artificial construct. But that's just made up n their perception was in itself artificial.
They mistrusted the benign aspect, the soft weather. Somehow if you're not freezing or burning to death, then God must have some terrible plan for you waiting round the corner, surely? No offense to any other place but it's easy living here - and some people find that strange.
It's hard to say because I'm so close to it. There are huge numbers of mystery and thriller writers who do very well out here n there are some great popular writers like Sydney Sheldon and a million serious female novelists out here. My daughter Lisa really crosses the genre because she used to write thrillers and now she's writing a serious novel. There are lots of terrific Latino writers and Asian American writers.
In a different way. I just love it. Mainly because you are around people in their 20's who have so much energy and they're so delightful, so goofy and funny. It's like being paid to have a good time. You're showing them what it might mean to be a great writer, not just about how to use strong verbs. There is a huge difference between the daydream and the daily reality of being a writer, and I try to help them with that.
I am terribly sad.
In California, 3 cents is spent per capita on arts education compared to $145 in Canada and $2.75 in New York. What do think is the long term harm of under-funding in the arts?
To be frank, I am of two thoughts. The state is broke and you can argue that they have to cut the arts budget because they're in such bad shape. However, to cut it from $30million to $1million is pretty extreme. I do believe though that whatever happens, the arts will survive in California - whether the government helps or not.
It's terrible for everybody. The public education system, the colleges and universities are all in terrible shape. It's a shame.
I'm a firm believer in Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the sense that they write beautifully and tell terrific stories. Their books are seductive in that once you start, you don't get that sense of "this is good for me, that's why I'm reading it" which is common with the classics.
The problem is, in public schools, they're under great pressure to find books that don't have sex in them, so that pretty much leaves ‘Silas Marner' and that's it…
I don't think you should make anyone read anything they don't want to. I feel that strongly.
Well, if you shove it down their throats they're not going to like it. I think the arts are here to educate us - but also to give us delight.
We wrote some books together along with John (Espey) under the pseudonym of Monica Highland. We had a wonderful time doing these crazy books - they're airplane literature for smart people, we'd say. They sold very well and got translated into a bunch of languages. I think all three of us taught each other how to write. My kids taught me as much I taught them.
Actually it started in 1965 n I taught full time at UCLA for two years, then I got pregnant again. For the first time in my life I had to stay home. I became a journalist, writing for Esquire and TV Guide, back when it was a decent publication. There was a time when I'd written for every magazine except Redbook.
Whatever really. I wanted to write for ‘Sports Illustrated' and I knew nothing about sports n so I wrote a piece on the Pismo Clam up at Pismo Beach. It was the only place where you could rent clamming forks and the only thing I knew about that was interesting to the magazine.
About three years later, a guy came out a buying trip, he was scouting around for new writers. He took me to lunch and said ‘have you ever thought about writing a novel?" and I said "no, I'm fine". Then I burst into tears n I had had my heart set on being a novelist for so long, and to have someone hand it to you like that on a plate was overwhelming. He gave me a contract for a book I hadn't written yet. Of course, later on I realized it was a terrible contract but it was my first novel (‘The Rest Is Done With Mirrors') and I don't think I'd have written it if it hadn't been for him.
My father (George Laws) was a failed writer until he was 69 and then he became a hard-core pornographer. (He published titles including ‘Vengeance on a Virgin', ‘Virgin Gold', and ‘Olivia's Ecology Lesson' under the pen name Harvey Peters)
Oh yes, you have to remember it was the sixties…
You said you've had quite an interesting life -why's that?
Well, when I was barely 17 my mother kicked me out of the house. I lived in furnished rooms in L.A. for four years supporting myself as a waitress until I got married. I was too young and dumb to know how dangerous it was. But really I was very lucky. I had two husbands and we all strive to be friends.
Do you think having had tough experiences helped you as a writer?
Well, the conventional wisdom is that you can't write unless you've suffered but I really think that's a leftover puritanical thing. I don't think you see it in England or France or Germany, but you see it here because it's hard for writers to justify their existence unless they're suffering. I think it'd be grand if people skipped the suffering part and went on to the writing.
Very colloquial but it always deals with topics that are big. John Espey, my life partner, was extremely learned but never let that get in the way of his sense of humor. I think hopefully I inherited that n I write about serious subjects in a light, shining way.
When I'm writing I do, but there's plenty of times when people don't write. Two out of the last four years have been difficult - John was dying and I have a grandson who was diagnosed with autism. He's the most wonderful little boy in the world. But it was an awful lot to take in.
Well yes, sometimes I've written when things are just awful and there are other times when life just takes up all of your hours. There's no point in beating yourself up about it n eventually all that stuff will be your material.
Yes, I have had a lot of notes since I wrote that book, but I used to get notes before that. A lot of them fly back and forth across the country and they're fun. A lot of my students keep in touch and it's just a way of writing without loneliness n there's a lot of loneliness as a writer.
Yesterday I got a note from someone who's been writing to me for a while from Washington DC - he said my book reviews have been in a slump because they haven't been giving me books that are up to my potential. What can you say to that except ‘thank you for the observation'?.
About six years.
For many years, I was standard issue hippie and so were the kids…we lived in a little cabin, 23 by 23 feet. You couldn't get there by car, you had to clamber up a cliff to get there. My second husband still lives there. It is idyllic but it wasn't easy living, dealing with fires, floods, snakes and so on.
You'll have to ask them about it - I think one of them loved it and the other had mixed feelings about it. We took them away from civilization on some level - it was rough living.
I think we got too old. The fire burned down the house next door and the one behind us n then the next year came the terrible floods of El Nino and we had to be outside for that with sandbags and the such n it's hard to do that when you're older.
They're wonderful and kind, the sweetest people. I thought it would be a real adjustment at first but it's actually almost as tight-knit a community as Topanga n people are very close and kind.
Carolyn See's fiction works include The Rest is Done with Mirrors; Mothers, Daughters; Rhine Maidens; Golden Days; Making History; and The Handyman. She's also written multiple nonfiction books, and her latest, Making a Literary Life, has been received with accolades across the U.S. and beyond.
Carolyn See Interviews-
Web Del Sol
Santa Monica Mirror